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Hyde-Smith is first Mississippi woman elected to U.S. Senate, carries state by 70K votes

Cindy Hyde-Smith will head back to Washington D.C. as the first elected female U.S. Senator in Mississippi history after defeating Mike Espy by about 70,000 votes statewide.

The Brookhaven Republican’s lead was commanding as of press time Tuesday night, as she tallied 474,190 votes to her Democratic challenger’s 405,209, with 99 percent of precincts reporting. The Associated Press called the race in Hyde-Smith’s favor shortly before 10 p.m., and Espy conceded shortly afterward, ending a special election runoff that gained national attention.

“This victory tonight, it’s about our conservative values, it’s about the things that mean the most to all of us Mississippians — our faith, our family — but it’s those things that I will take to Washington D.C.,” Hyde-Smith, 59, said to her supporters at her post-election party in Jackson. “I want to represent all Mississippians with these values. I will fight for it, I assure you, every single day. I am your warrior.”

President Donald Trump, who appeared at two big campaign rallies on Hyde-Smith’s behalf Monday in Tupelo and Biloxi, tweeted his support to the junior senator later Tuesday night.

“Congratulations to Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith on your big WIN in the Great State of Mississippi,” Trump tweeted. “We are all very proud of you.”

Espy told supporters at his rally he was proud of what he called a “historic campaign.” He offered his prayers to Hyde-Smith and encouraged his supporters to continue what he called a movement.

“When this many people speak up, it is not a loss. It’s a movement,” said Espy, 64. “We built the largest grass-roots organization our state has seen in a generation. Tonight is the beginning. Tonight is not the end.”

Espy did build a strong base. He took 46.1 percent of the vote statewide, a total that wrapped up black votes and Democrats and likely pulled over a handful of uncertain Republicans. But it wasn’t enough statewide, and certainly not in Lincoln County, to best Hyde-Smith.

Hyde-Smith’s home county supported her overwhelmingly with a better than two-to-one margin of victory. The senator collected 8,536 Lincoln County votes, good for 68 percent, to Espy’s 4,007 votes, a distant 32 percent.

Hyde-Smith will return to Washington D.C., and serve out the remaining two years of the unexpired term of former U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, who resigned due to health reasons early in 2018.

The only other race on Tuesday’s runoff ballot — Mississippi Court of Appeals District 4, Position 2 — saw David McCarty best Jeff Weill Sr. for an eight-year term, replacing retiring Chief Judge Joe Lee. Statewide results were not available as of press time, but McCarty carried Lincoln County with 58 percent of the vote, gaining 6,802 ballots to Weill’s 4,825.

Hyde-Smith’s victory was almost assured in Republican-held Mississippi — definitely in Lincoln County — even after controversial quotes and old history that might have sunk a less-supported campaign.

Louisiana reporter Lamar White Jr. on Nov. 11 published video of Hyde-Smith saying she thought so highly of a supporter “if he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.” The remarks, made during a campaign stop in Tupelo, touched racial nerves statewide, with opponents quickly tying her quote to Mississippi’s racist past, where almost 600 lynchings took place in the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras.

Hyde-Smith initially declined to apologize for the remark, finally offering up an explanation during a Farm Bureau-sponsored debate with Espy on Nov. 20.

The senator made more national headlines later when photos of her appearing on the Confederate-themed cheer squad of her high school, now-defunct Lawrence County Academy, were published. Another video of her joking with supporters in Starkville about making it harder for liberals to vote drew another round of criticism.

Gov. Phil Bryant appointed Hyde-Smith to fill Cochran’s Senate seat in March. She left her twice-won position as state agriculture commissioner to accept the appointment. Trump, believing Hyde-Smith’s history as a Democrat in the state senate would harm her chances against Tea Party favorite Chris McDaniel, initially declined to endorse her.

Trump later got on board with Hyde-Smith, and the national Republican machine pumped in campaign cash. Hyde-Smith and Espy easily topped McDaniel and Democratic candidate Tobey Bartee, leading to Tuesday’s runoff.

Voter turnout for the runoff was high — unusually high, said Lincoln County Circuit Clerk Dustin Bairfield. Turnout was 60.34 percent, as 12,576 of Lincoln County’s 20,841 voters hit the polls. The numbers were just short of the general election on Nov. 6, when 12,728 ballots were cast.

“To have this turnout in a runoff is remarkable,” Bairfield said. “For this county to have a 60 percdnt turnout in a runoff with only two races on the ballot showed there was very much an interest in the Senate race. People felt like they had a reason to vote.”

Bairfield reported only one problem throughout Tuesday’s voting — a transformer blew at the Arlington precinct around 8 a.m. But Bairfield was there, and happened to have a portable generator in his truck, so the machines came back to life quickly and Magnolia Electric Power restored electricity from the grid around 9 a.m., he said.